As Joe Mueller walked to his car in the parking lot of the adjacent medical office building, he thought about the last few months. He thought about the successful completion of his first year of college. He thought about the job he landed for the upcoming summer. He thought about the nagging sore throat he ignored for many weeks while he finished up the semester’s coursework and finals. He thought about what he had just discussed with his doctor. He thought, “I have cancer.”
Joe is one of the more than 13,000 men newly diagnosed with HPV oral cancers annually. Human papillomavirus is the sexually transmitted infection (STI) causing the current epidemic of oral cancer among men. While oral tumors have long been linked to smoking and heavy alcohol use, the number of these have declined in recent years. In contrast, HPV linked tumors have increased over 300 percent in the last 20 years resulting in the virus being found in 70 percent of all new oral cancers. While HPV has serious consequences for women such as cervical cancer, when it comes to oral cancer, men are four times more likely to be diagnosed with HPV related oral cancers than women. Recent research indicates that men are more likely to get HPV infections and that their immune systems are less able to fight off the infections. It is not yet exactly understood why this is the case.
According to Ashish Deshmukh, a leading HPV researcher at the University of Florida, while screening methods for cervical cancer in women allow for early detection, there are not similar screening options for oral cancers. Even though screening is not an option, prevention is, in the form of a vaccine. Unfortunately, too many parents are not protecting their children -especially their boys- by insuring they are vaccinated against the most common strains of HPV. Some parents are unaware of HPV, its risks and vaccine availability. Other parents are troubled about the message it sends to their children to vaccinate them against a sexually transmitted disease during their pre-teen years, as is required. The leading vaccine, Gardasil, usually requires two shots and in some cases, three. Getting children vaccinated protects girls against most cervical cancers and both boys and girls against a wide range of oral cancers, including tongue, soft palate, tonsils and others including throat cancer. When college student, Joe Mueller, learned of his throat cancer diagnosis, he was shocked. He was equally shocked to learn of the vaccine that could have prevented it and longed for the very different summer that would have been, had he been protected.
It’s imperative that students learn the most common types of sexually transmitted infections, their consequences and the ways to avoid contraction. By including risk reduction, a student gains knowledge while provoking critical thinking regarding the application of learning to one’s own life. This helps students develop a toolbox of ideas that enable wise decision-making that leads to better health and brighter futures.
Gravitt PE. Unraveling the Epidemiology of Oral Human Papillomavirus Infection. Ann Intern Med. 2017;167:748–749. doi: 10.7326/M17-2628
Viens LJ, Henley SJ, Watson M, Markowitz LE, Thomas CC, Thompson TD, Razzaghi H, Saraiya M, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Human papillomavirus–associated cancers—United States, 2008–2012. MMWR2016;65(26):661–666.